IUCN Red List update: Invasive species and illegal trade push reptiles and cacti closer to extinction

Ibiza wall lizard and Gran Canaria reptiles endangered, Copiapoa cacti critically endangered
Ibiza wall lizard
The Ibiza wall lizard (Podarcis pityusensis) has been reclassified as endangered from near threatened due to a 50 per cent population decline since 2010iStock

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has issued a stark warning about the threats posed by invasive species and illegal trade to several reptile and cactus species. An update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has highlighted the plight of island reptiles facing competition and predation from introduced snakes. 

The Ibiza wall lizard (Podarcis pityusensis) has been reclassified as endangered from near threatened due to a 50 per cent population decline since 2010, attributed to the invasive horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) which is occupying its territory. 

Similarly, the Gran Canaria giant Lizard or Gallotia stehlini and Gran Canaria skink (Chalcides sexlineatus) found in Gran Canaria, an island in Spain, face extinction threats from the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae) introduced in 1998. Both species have seen population declines exceeding 50 per cent since 2014.

The status of the Gran Canaria giant lizard has been changed from least concern to endangered, while that of the Gran Canaria skink has been updated from least concern to endangered. 

The IUCN also raises concerns about the illegal trade of ornamental cacti.  Endemic to Chile’s Atacama desert, 82 per cent of Copiapoa cacti species are now critically endangered, a significant increase from 55 per cent in 2013. 

“Cacti and succulents around the world are currently in exceptionally high demand as ornamental species, which compounds the ongoing threats of land cover change and climate related pressures,” said Steven Bachman, research leader, Conservation Assessment and Analysis at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Their popularity in Europe and Asia fuels illegal trade, facilitated by social media. Infrastructure development and climate change further endanger these slow-growing plants.

People’s easy accessibility has made it possible to reach poachers. Climate change has posed additional threats to the cacti species as the oceanic fog required for their hydration changes with global temperature variations. 

According to the IUCN statement, the change in movement in oceanic fog makes it impossible for long-lived species to reproduce quickly enough to relocate. 

“It is easy to distinguish if Copiapoa cacti have been poached or grown in a greenhouse,” said Pablo Guerrero, Principal Investigator at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, Associate Professor at the University of Concepción, and member of the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group. 

Poached Copiapoa have a grey tone and are coated in a dusty-looking bloom that protects the plants in one of the driest deserts on Earth, whereas cultivated plants appear greener, he said.

Collaboration between countries can help prevent the transportation of poached plants. Greenhouses can offer an alternative in cultivating Copiapoa to offer a sustainable alternative to the worldwide market, IUCN recommended. 

“This latest update of the Red List reveals a shockingly high level of threat to Copiapoa cacti, with eighty-two percent reported to be at risk of extinction. Even worse is that this percentage has risen so quickly from 55 per cent in the last major assessment of cacti,” Bachman said, adding that the Red List raises the alarm for urgent action to help save these threatened species.

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